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Temple 23, Yakuō-ji

The Temple of the Great Healer

Temple 23, Yakuō-ji

Yakuō-ji is temple No. 23 on the Shikoku pilgrimage or Henro. Yakuō-ji offers a beautiful view of Hiwasa Bay and Hiwasa Castle from the viewing area around the modern pagoda, while the pagoda can be seen from a considerable distance away.

What to see

From the town, the temple rises steeply up the hill with various buildings on platforms.

The guardians in the Niō Gate are carved in a beautifully fluid style. Beyond the gate, a promenade lined with stone lanterns leads to a flight of steps used by women in a ritual to forestall the misfortunes that occur at certain ages. At the top of the steps is a level with an Ema Hall athwart the approach and to the right, a belfry, priest’s quarters, and the upper temple office.

The next flight of steps is where men perform their age-related ritual.  On the level at the top of the steps is the main hall which comprises a large worship hall and behind it, an inner hall, which is a two-storied pagoda. Behind the main hall is a small shrine whose sacred water containing radium is considered effective against lung diseases. The gong under a wooden canopy eliminates misfortune.

The top-most part of Yakuō-ji is the thirty-metre pagoda called Yugitō. You can go inside and climb the stairs to get an even better view over Hiwasa. For a small fee, you can also go into the basement and see the little museum of model ships, a beautiful Kannon statue holding a basket of fish, and an amusing selection of paintings of hell. 

History

Gyōki founded the temple in 726 at the request of Emperor Shōmu. On the orders of Emperor Heizei, Kūkai carved a Yakushi Nyorai, the healing Buddha, as the principal image and revived the temple in 815.

The temple was destroyed by fire in 1188. After that, the temple was rebuilt by Emperor Go-Daigo. Successive emperors were strong believers in the temple’s efficacy and sent their envoys to pray for protection against misfortune. In 1226, Emperor Tsuchimikado himself visited. The temple land was donated by the Hachisuka family, the lords of the Tokushima domain.

The current main hall was rebuilt in 1908, and in 1963, the pagoda was built.

Legends

A commonly held belief in Japanese society is that misfortune adheres to certain ages in life, and grace must be sought from temples and shrines to avoid disaster in these years. Aside from its place in the pilgrimage Yakuō-ji receives many visitors from all over Japan, thanks to its reputation as an efficacious place to pray for protection in unlucky years. It’s also dedicated to the safety of sailors and the numerous model ships around the temple represent ships saved by the power of the Buddha.

The approach to the temple has two sets of steps, one with 42 steps for men to climb, and the other with 33 steps for women. The final set of steps to the Main Hall has 61 steps, corresponding to the most perilous years. Believers leave a coin on each step on the way up while reciting the Yakushi mantra. Also, if you strike the gong in front of the Main Hall the same number of times as your age, your misfortunes will evaporate with each ring. Probably.

A charming legend attaches to two statues that sit back to back. When the temple burned down in 1188, the original statue is said to have escaped by flying west to nearby Mt. Tamazushi. When the temple was rebuilt and a statue of Yakushi Nyorai was enshrined here, the original statue returned and took his accustomed place, but sitting back to back with the new statue. The statues aren’t shown to the public.

Information

Name in Japanese: 薬王寺

Pronunciation: yakuō-ji

Address: 285−1 Teramae​​​​​​​, Okugawauchi​​​​​​​, Minami, Kaifu, Tokushima 779-2305

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